The rebuild is over.
After wandering the baseball wilderness for seven years, the Phillies expect to march back into the playoffs in 2019. Incremental progress is a thing of the past. It’s postseason or bust.
Team officials haven’t actually uttered those words, but their actions on Thursday speak loudly and clearly. The Phillies acquired all-star catcher J.T. Realmuto from the Miami Marlins in a trade that includes top prospect Sixto Sanchez, and it’s the kind of move that teams don’t make unless they are all-in to win.
Realmuto, who turns 28 next month, is the consensus best all-around catcher in baseball. He will make $5.9 million this year, a relative bargain, and isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season. He instantly helps the Phillies “move the needle,” as general manager Matt Klentak often says, in the direction of the 90 wins that they likely will need to make the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
The Phillies’ other offseason business — trading for shortstop Jean Segura, signing veteran outfielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever David Robertson, and flirting heavily with megastars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — was undertaken with the same goal in mind. But none required the sacrifice of Sanchez, a 20-year-old right-hander who has drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez, or even young catcher Jorge Alfaro, also headed to the Marlins along with minor-league lefty Will Stewart and international slot money.
Trading for Realmuto is different. And it serves notice to the rest of the bulked-up National League East, much of which tried to trade for Realmuto earlier in the winter — and more important to Machado and Harper, too — that the Phillies are throwing open their window to compete for a championship right this very season even if it means trading a potential future ace who might have helped them prop open that window for a few years longer.
“I think we’ve improved pretty significantly, not only with this move but with some of the other moves that we’ve made this offseason," Klentak said on a conference call. “I think this is another acquisition for our club that demonstrates our commitment to winning, and I would hope that demonstration would be appealing to potential free agents.”
Realmuto undeniably makes the Phillies better this year and next, and although Klentak said they didn’t attempt to negotiate a contract extension with him before completing the trade, they most certainly will look into it before long. Realmuto reached career-highs in home runs (21) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.825) in 125 games last season, and those numbers figure to improve as he moves from cavernous Marlins Park to homer-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
But Realmuto does more than provide middle-of-the-order pop. His proficiency behind the plate as an elite framer and blocker of pitches figures to be a steadying force for a starting rotation that still skews young with Zach Eflin (24), Nick Pivetta (25), Vince Velasquez (26), Jerad Eickhoff (28) and even 25-year-old ace Aaron Nola.
There’s a reason why the division rival New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals — among other teams — looked into prying Realmuto away from the Marlins earlier in the offseason.
Timing is everything for a team that is ready to win right now, and the Phillies’ timeline didn’t line up with Sanchez’s. It’s conceivable he could rocket through the minor leagues this season and reach the majors by 2020. But there were caution flags. Sanchez made only eight starts last season — and 26 over the last two years — because of injuries. The Phillies also are touting 22-year-old right-hander Adonis Medina almost as much as Sanchez.
There’s another component to this, too. The Phillies are trying to win the bidding for either Machado or Harper, the 26-year-old free-agent studs. What better way than to make an aggressive move for Realmuto, an all-star who is respected by other stars around the game.
Harper, in particular, appears to be a Realmuto fan. Last year, when the Washington Nationals were looking to acquire a catcher before the trade deadline, Harper jokingly put his cap on Realmuto’s head during pregame introductions at the All-Star Game. After Realmuto notched the go-ahead single in a Marlins victory over the Nationals last season, Harper declared, “If we had that guy, we would have won.”
“Rhys Hoskins played with J.T. Realmuto in that Japan tour this past fall and talked about what an incredible teammate he is and how impactful he would be on our club,” Klentak said. “I’m sure anybody who’s been around to see him as a teammate or as an opponent would feel similarly.”
When the offseason began, Realmuto made clear through his agent that he’s tired of seeing the Marlins strip-mine their roster, essentially requesting to join former star teammates Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna on winning teams. And as the offseason nears its end, the Phillies have made clear that they intend to win right now.
The rebuild is over. The window to playoff contention at Citizens Bank Park is open wider than at any point since 2012.